Aberdeen travelled to Hampden on Saturday afternoon hoping to reach their second consecutive Scottish Cup…
It’s been a fairly low-key summer at Fir Park so far. Five new players have signed and joined the first team squad and four have departed as Stephen Robinson looks to fine-tune his team with the season about to kick off. After finishing as runners-up in both the Scottish Cup and the League Cup, Motherwell will surely be looking to convert their cup form into a strong run in the league. Last season they missed out on the top six by eight points – not an insurmountable hurdle, but certainly a significant one.
As they demonstrated in the cups, a fit and firing Motherwell side were a handful for just about anyone in Scotland last season. Previous summers at Fir Park have been marked with a flurry of players coming and going but Robinson appears to be largely happy with his squad, preferring to supplement his team with a few new faces rather than a total upheaval of the starting eleven.
Has Robinson done enough though? Are Motherwell ready to break into the top six? Below, we’ve taken a look at their summer so far and the problems from the previous campaign to find out if they’re ready to make the step up.
The club’s most pressing issue for the upcoming season seems to be at the top end of the pitch. Motherwell lost a reliable goalscorer in Louis Moult in January but Curtis Main has shouldered much of the goalscoring responsibility and looks like a real find for Robinson. As well as Main has performed, however, there are still problems for Robinson to address.
A little under a third of Motherwell’s attempts on goal last year ended up off-target, the lowest rate of any Premiership side. Chances are being created without too much difficulty, but their forwards’ lack of composure is costing the Steelmen dearly. Out of the top six, only Hearts – with a remarkably effective defence – scored fewer goals than Robinson’s side. Motherwell’s defence is decent, but not on the same level as their other rivals for a spot in the top half.
This hasn’t gone unnoticed at Fir Park and Robinson has added Danny Johnson from the English lower leagues to bolster the Motherwell attack, giving him a choice of four strikers for the two positions available in the starting eleven. The club’s most important piece of business, however, has been in retaining the services of Main. The 26-year-old forward has proven himself and scored against most of the best teams in Scotland; hopefully, with a six-month bedding in period under his belt, Main can become the regular goalscorer that Moult was and perform at an even higher level than last season.
Defensively speaking, all things considered, Motherwell can be fairly pleased with their performances over the last campaign. The Steelmen’s tough, no-nonsense approach won them a few critics but there’s no denying the effectiveness of their style. Signing tall, strong players has worked out well for them – Motherwell lead the Premiership in the number of aerial duels contested, have one of the highest success rates in this regard and complete more interceptions than any other Premiership side. In 38 league fixtures Motherwell only conceded four headers and in Kipre and Allan Campbell they have two of the best young players in the Premiership when it comes to winning the ball back.
With Stephen Hendrie returning to his parent club after completing his loan deal, Motherwell were in need of a new left-back and Robinson has brought in Aaron Taylor-Sinclair to fill the void left by Hendrie. Originally a product of Aberdeen’s youth academy, Taylor-Sinclair became a key player in the Partick Thistle side that eventually won promotion to the Premiership. At one time he was linked with a move to Celtic, but eventually joined Wigan and spent the next few years of his career in England.
Robinson has tempted Taylor-Sinclair back up to Scotland and his new recruit is perfectly suited to Motherwell’s style of football. Operating as a left-back in a five-man defence means that a player will be expected to cover a lot of ground, dribble forward when required and play lots of crosses into the box. Taylor-Sinclair does all of this with aplomb and picked up nine assists from left back during his time at Firhill – for a side as effective at winning headers as Motherwell, this could prove an invaluable asset. With Richard Tait on the right and Taylor-Sinclair on the left, Robinson now has two excellent full-backs that fit his tactical system perfectly.
The signing of central midfielder Alex Gorrin looks to be another problem-solving addition to Motherwell’s squad. Last season, Motherwell gave the ball away more than any other side. Now, this is in part due to their playing style – if you hit a lot of crosses, you’re going to give the ball away a lot – but it’s still a clear area in need for improvement for Robinson. It looks like Gorrin has been signed to rectify this – unsurprisingly, the Spanish central midfielder is pretty tidy in possession and rarely gives the ball away. Partnered alongside Campbell in midfield, with Carl McHugh playing a holding role behind them, Motherwell have the basis of a solid midfield that looks a step up from last year’s edition.
As much as Motherwell improve though, the reality is that they will need a side above them to get significantly worse. Five of last year’s top six seem nailed on to repeat the feat; both halves of the Old Firm, Aberdeen and Hibs would have to implode in spectacular fashion to miss out on the top half. As long as Steve Clarke is managing Kilmarnock it’s difficult to envisage them slipping down the table. That leaves just Hearts – but the opportunity could be there for Motherwell to leapfrog them in the table.
With the playing squad at Tynecastle undergoing rapid change, it’s difficult to know just how well they’ll get on this season. One departure is certain to hurt more than any other though. Jon McLaughlin’s decision to join Jack Ross at Sunderland means that Hearts lost their best – and most influential – player. Without McLaughlin between the sticks, Hearts would have almost certainly dropped into the bottom half of the Premiership and his loss will be keenly felt in Edinburgh. With so much uncertainty, Motherwell could well capitalise if Hearts have a slow start while they click into gear.
It’s been a successful summer for Motherwell then, and one that sets them up nicely for the upcoming season. It looks like Robinson has strengthened his squad where it was required, but the Steelmen will still probably have to rely on someone further up the table slipping up. One thing’s for sure though: Robinson will be ready and waiting.